Devout Unbelief, Part 2

FirmageImage Part2

The LDS (Mormon) Tabernacle of Paris, Idaho. (Credit: Ed Firmage, Jr.)

Why believe in the first place? How could an educated, otherwise skeptical person with a sense of humor believe in angels bearing golden plates? How could someone like Mormon genius, polymath, and liberal social critic Hugh Nibley, my intellectual mentor until I found unbelief in Berkeley, believe the story of Joseph Smith, and not just believe it, but devote his entire, long life to the defense of it?

Belief has nothing to do with intelligence or learning. Among believers and non-believers you’ll find a mix of really smart and educated and really stupid and ignorant people, and everything in between. Many a brilliant crusader against religion like Richard Dawkins began as a believer. Many a believer, like C. S. Lewis, began as a hardened skeptic. Paul, arguably the true founder of Christianity, had made a name for himself as a Jew’s Jew and persecutor of Christians.

While many people believe because they don’t know any better, belief can be very attractive to smart, creative people because there is much about belief that speaks to the creative mind, especially to the soulful creative mind. The mind, after all, isn’t an analytical machine designed by nature to tear fables apart. Quite the contrary: The mind loves stories, and seeks relationships and meaning in all kinds of things, including some that aren’t real.

An article about creative people from the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, explains how this works from a neurological point of view. The conclusion of the article is worth quoting at length.

“In A Beautiful Mind, her biography of the mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar describes a visit Nash received from a fellow mathematician while institutionalized at McLean Hospital. “How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical truth,” the colleague asked, “believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” To which Nash replied: “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.

“Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.”

Then there are people who aren’t necessarily geniuses or mentally ill; they’re just misled by their own creativity. The flip side of being creative, of seeing all sorts of connections where ordinary people do not is that you see also connections where none exist, except in your own magnificent mind. Nor is it just a matter of seeing connections; you feel them, you feel them as true. The joy of finding deep connections between things feeds the soul of the creative believer no less than that of the scientific genius or the madman.